Atheism+ is Humanism Rebranded – And That’s OK!

Jen McCreight has proposed a “new wave” of atheism, “Atheism+”. Here’s her description of what this new wave would look like:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It has already been noted by many that this description bears an uncanny resemblance to Humanism – the positive, progressive lifestance promoted on this blog and by numerous existing organizations in the freethought movement. Humanists are also atheists (and agnostics and skeptics etc.) who believe in social justice, women’s rights, anti racism, queer equality and critical thinking and skepticism. And we’ve been around, trying to promote these values in the freethought movement, for a long time.

So, is Atheism+ a rebranded Humanism?

Yes. And that’s perfectly OK!

I’m going to be honest here: when I first read about “Atheism+” I was both excited and annoyed. Excited because the issues I’ve been talking about for the past two years at atheist, skeptic and freethought conferences around the country were finally getting traction in the community at freethought blogs. And annoyed because I – and lots of my colleagues – have been talking about precisely these issues for years without them getting traction!

But on further consideration I feel that my annoyance is kind of a selfish response to the positive reaction Jen’s idea has garnered, and that there is much more to celebrate here than to criticize. So here I’d like to lay out my thoughts on Atheism+ in as full and clear way as possible.

Is Atheism+ just Humanism with a different name?

As far as I can tell, from the description provided, the answer is yes in terms of the values, no in terms of the emphasis. The values listed by Jen in her post are classic Humanist values – values which Humanist organizations work on already, and have been working on for a long time. The American Humanist Association has a Feminist Caucus and an LGBT Council, both of which address these issues from an atheistic perspective. African Americans for Humanism is an existing organization addressing issues of race and diversity relating specifically to African Americans. Social Justice and critical thinking are traditional Humanist values too.

So far, so similar. But it seems clear that Atheism+ has a different emphasis to Humanism, simply by dint of the name. I have always liked “Humanism” because it explicitly places the locus of concern on Humans (this does not mean that Humanists don’t care about non-Humans – but that’s another blog post) rather than on historical figures or religious traditions. And, ultimately, that’s where I think our concern should be focused.

Clearly, once you put “Atheism” in the title of any movement, it is much clearer that a central focus is on atheism – the visibility and treatment of atheists, for example, or the promotion of atheism. The term “Humanism”, and even the term “Secular Humanism”, is not so explicit on this front. For those who see the promotion of atheist identity and fighting anti-atheist discrimination as top priorities it is easy to see the appeal in being more explicit about atheism in the title of a movement. There’s an inherent benefit to identifying as “A+”, too, as Ashley F. Miller has pointed out:

There is a difference between a self-defined humanist doing something good for mankind and a self-defined atheist doing it, simply because of the massive amount of stigma associated with atheism. Proving that atheists care about other people and making the world a better place is important. I think that “atheism+” is a way to bring the philosophy of humanism more strongly to the fight for atheist equality, and vice versa.

So Atheism+ seems to me to be Humanism rebranded to place a stronger emphasis on atheism.

Is there a problem that Atheism+ is just Humanism with a different name?

Not really, no. Ultimately what is important is that we inspire people to act in accordance with their values, and that through our actions to change the world. If Atheism+ is about “walking the walk”, then it really is the walk that is important, not the banner that people walk under. If some people want to walk the same path as I under a different banner, then I’m happy to walk beside them – ultimately we’re heading to the same place.

Rebranding a good idea isn’t always a bad move – sometimes it will help “sell the product” to a new audience. And that seems to be precisely what’s happening. People who have not shown a huge amount of enthusiasm before for Humanist organizations seem to be very excited about a proposed A+ organization. And if it brings more people into what is essentially Humanist activism, that’s a good thing.

Why are all the people excited about Atheism+ not so excited about Humanism?

What’s interesting for a Humanist activist to consider, though, is why many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism”. Some, like Miller, will do so for explicitly political reasons, while happily also identifying as a Humanist. Others, though, actively object to the term “Humanist”, and seem excited now partly because they can do “Humanist things” without having to identify as a “Humanist”. And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

Perhaps one problem is the perception that “Humanism” is too uncritical of or accommodating toward religion. Perhaps another is that there is currently a lot of activist energy in the atheist movement which depends on “atheism” being an explicit organizing principle. A third, maybe, is that the language and marketing of traditional Humanism seems too old-fashioned. For whatever reason, it does seem that the Humanist “packaging” of these ideas simply isn’t as appealing, to some, as the A+ packaging. This is something I’d like to return to in the future.

So, Atheism+ or Humanism?

For me, the Humanist label seems more apt. It expresses my positive values more clearly and focuses the mind on human concerns. To me Atheism is secondary to the “plus”, and Humanism does a better job of articulating the “plus”. The institutions Humanists have already built to do something about that “plus” need the help and support of people who care about those values, and I want to work within them to improve and strengthen that part of the movement.

But if other people want to organize under a different banner toward similar goals I’m happy to march beside them. I just want to ensure we share resources, don’t compete unnecessarily, and learn from what has already been accomplished.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.